As CitiBike launches, what’s next for Portland’s Alta Bicycle Share?

Alta Bicycle Share principal Mia Birk explains Portland's future system to possible sponsors
Alta Bicycle Share principal Mia Birk explains
Portland’s future system to possible sponsors
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

The Portland-based company that leads the nation in bikesharing just enjoyed its biggest launch yet, kicking off a 6,000-bike deal worth tens of millions of dollars over the next few years. And for Alta Bicycle Share, 2013 is only going to get more interesting.

Alta’s system is planning to launch in Chicago in “late summer.” San Francisco and the Bay Area are slated to join Alta’s empire in August with 350 bikes, and Columbus will get a 300-bike fleet in July. Alta already operates systems in Washington, Boston, and now New York City, meaning the company’s municipal bikeshare systems will be in five of the country’s 10 biggest metro areas by year’s end. Waiting in Alta’s wings: Vancouver BC, Seattle, and of course Portland. (Atlanta and Philadelphia, two more top-10 metro areas, seem to be on their way to bikesharing, too, and Alta will be a strong contender.)

This sort of growth is huge for a company that’s less than four years old — and also risky for a company that just lost a top executive to a possible competitor and has had to weather serious technical delays and complicated labor issues in the middle of its rapid expansion.

So I decided to talk to two national bikesharing experts about Portland’s locally-grown industry leader and the future of bikesharing in general. The two were Matt Christensen, managing editor of, a Santa Monica-based website that posts jobs and other news about the bikesharing industry; and Paul DeMaio, founder of DC-based bikeshare consulting firm MetroBike LLC, who’s been publishing The Bike-sharing Blog for six years now.’s Matt Christensen and MetroBike LLC’s Paul DeMaio.

Both of these guys were thoughtful, frank and upbeat in their assessment of where Alta and the concept of bikesharing are headed. The questions and answers below have been combined from separate interviews that covered many of the same subjects.

Seems like Alta’s got a very busy year ahead.

MC: They have a massive amount of work ahead of them.

PD: It’s amazing growth for any company, let alone this wacky idea of bikesharing, so I don’t know how they’re going to do it. But I know here in the DC region we’ve been really pleased with the company. As long as they can find good staff.

MC: I’ve heard [staff] cited as pretty much the number one factor when it comes to the success of the program. It’s not the equipment; it’s not the station siting.

Alta Bicycle Share-style bikes.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Do you mean finding the right staff to pump tires, or the right staff to shake hands?

MC: From a management perspective it’s very important to have an effective leader. … On the ground, you have people who are at the stations on a regular basis … Kind of engaging with the public, making sure that things are being addressed.

So can Alta do it?

MC: It’s hard to say one way or another. I’d like to think that they can, because they have a proven business model. They know how to be successful in these cities. … They have a lot of opportunity to generate revenue outside of just membership and user fees.

Is [Alta principal Mia Birk] going to be able to take on all this responsibility, address media concerns, address other sorts of things that pop up? And then – pardon my French – is [Alta equipment supplier] PBSC going to get their s*** together? There is a ton of equipment that needs to get on the ground.

Part of the reason Alta’s year is so busy is that they had to delay last year’s launches because of problems with a new software package. Do you think that’s over and done with?

PD: I can’t imagine that Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Sadik-Khan would have allowed the service to launch knowing that it still had problems.

Bixi Toronto, a non-Alta system that uses the same hardware, is in terrible shape and considering selling off their equipment. Seems like the problem has been that Toronto isn’t a big enough city with enough tourists for bikesharing to work without a subsidy, as they have been. Is that right-ish?

MC: Their business model was basically flawed from the get-go. … I’m under the school of thought that bikeshare is basically public transit [and therefore requires a public subsidy].

“Once there are more tried and true models, for-profit models of bikeshare, I see these for-profit companies going head-to-head with public-private partnerships.”
— Paul DeMaio, bikesharing consultant

In five years, will growth in bikesharing come from more use in the big cities, or from new cities coming into the market?

PD: There’s going to continue to be growth for many years. Right now I think a lot of the larger cities are taking the lead. A lot of these cities are either very bike-friendly or are cities that are progressive. … Because of bikesharing in these first-tier cities, I think we’re going to see a lot of pressure from the populations of these second-tier cities to promote improved bike facilities.

I can see competition. I think once there are more tried and true models, for-profit models of bikeshare, I see these for-profit companies going head-to-head with public-private partnerships. … And I also see them going head-to-head with other for-profit services like Decobike down in Miami Beach.

MC: Have you seen what they’re doing in Hoboken? … “Smart lock” rather than “smart dock” – each bike has a mini locking mechanism. … It’s going to be launched in Tampa, in Phoenix. … I think we’re going to see, at least for the short-term, an explosion of these smart-lock technologies. … They’re a lot cheaper, they’re a lot quicker to install, and they can be a lot easier to move around within a city. … But if they don’t prove resilient to the public, which can be pretty abusive at times, I think we’re going to see more of the station-based bikeshare systems [like Alta’s].

It seems like Alta was smart to start with bikesharing in DC, because local government officials are always going to DC for one reason or another and would see bikesharing in action. Will New York bikesharing have a similar effect?

PD: It’s hard to understand unless you actually see it and use it. As the concept is introduced to more Americans, more North Americans, more foreigners, they can see how well it works, they can see it does work, and they can hopefully bring the concept to their own town. New York being such an international city, I think it’s really good publicity for us as Americans, really. … We are not people addicted to automobiles and gasoline and oil consumption, but we are a country of innovators.

Qs & As edited for brevity. Alta Bicycle Share didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

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